Earning my stripes in Bosnia

Well….hopefully.

By John Thomas, 18th August 2021

So what on earth brings me to Bosnia and Herzegovina? I hardly knew where it was on the map until a few days ago. Well, COVID has meant my usual work in skiing and cycling has gone for the last 18 months. That, in turn has given me more time to ride than ever before. Time to ride and time to reassess cycling goals. Goals in a sport like cycling are crucial, you need a good carrot to motivate you on those mid winter turbo sessions. I’ve had goals of long distance rides, world records, and specific races in the past. With the time that COVID had granted me I might as well aim high now, how about trying to be World Champion?

The UCI organises an annual Granfonfo World Campionships. It’s effectively the World Championships for age groups, with a road and time trial title available for each 5 year age category. Each World Champion is awarded with the iconic rainbow stripes jersey and the unwritten right to wear those stripes on their kit for the rest of their cycling days. Look closely at the jerseys of Mark Cavendish, Alejandro Valverde and all other past World Champions and you’ll see those stripes proudly paraded on collars and sleeves.

I first came across the event in 2013. I somehow managed to get a wildcard for the final in Trento and managed to finish 16th in the 45-49 category. 8 years on I’m a stronger and wiser rider. Getting on the podium or even winning is not totally unrealistic, so, this has become my goal and carrot that has driven me in recent months. The final of the event changes venue every year. Just like the elite pro World Champs the courses vary each year and suit different riders. Since Trento I’ve been waiting for a course that was hilly enough to suit my strengths and ideally with an uphill finish. Sarajevo 2021 fitted the bill, enough hills for me to have a chance.

I enquired with the organiser to see if I could get a wildcard entry to the final based on my previous performances. No chance this time. Strict rules enforced, I would need to go to a qualifying event. There are numerous qualifying events around the world where the strongest riders in each age category qualify for the final. I was set to try to qualify in Trento in July but the event was cancelled. Sarajevo became my only qualifying option. It would host not only the final but a qualifying event too, serving as a practice event for the organisers on more or less the same course.

So here I am in the Balkans, first time ever in this part of the world. It felt so good to be travelling somewhere, first time on a plane since for me since the COVID era. I was picked up from Sarajevo airport by the hosts of my apartment that I’d booked for the weekend. Unbelievably friendly and helpful, and very tolerant of my endless touristy questions about Bosnia and Sarajevo. Sure, I was here for a bike race but what a bonus to be somewhere so new and different to anywhere I’d been before.

I settled in and then rode the key parts of the course on the afternoon I arrived. I was ready.

Race day

I’m always nervous at the beginning of any race and this one was no exception. My ultimate goal in cycling depended on me at least qualifying today so I’d certainly loaded some pressure on myself. I’d travelled a long way and put a few eggs in this basket so I needed to perform.

As expected the weather was clear and hot. A 10am start in Lukavica, just outside Sarajevo was going to mean us riding in the heat of the day. I was well positioned near the front of around 300 riders. We received an announcement that the first 5kms would be neutralised, so the first little climb at 3kms would now be a lot less frantic. That little climb would have split the peloton if it wasn’t neutralised, we were now destined to be in a big group for the first 30kms of the day. That meant a fast and potentially dangerous first 40 minutes.

I’d tried to research some of my fellow, age group riders who were on the start list. There was a Turk called Ercevik who looked pretty handy when I found him on Strava. Race numbers made riders easy to identify and I spotted him at the start. He looked confident and strong.  I decided to watch him and ‘mark’ him if need. He started just behind me and my peripheral radar would be on the look out for his black and yellow outfit if he came past me.

As the race started at the 5km point the pace was fast as expected. For me it was all about just getting to the first climb at the 30km point without getting detached from the bunch. One we started going up fitness levels would dictate everything but until then I just needed to be towed.

The roads were generally wide and the surface good. This would always be the most dangerous and nerve wracking period of the race. 300 riders of different level of fitness and experience with no terrain yet that would naturally split the group. 300 riders having to trust each other not to put a foot wrong. At 15kms the pace was a steady 50 kph which was already too fast for some, our group was down to about 150. Over a wide bridge at 20kms and suddenly that horrible sight of riders going down in front of me. I’ll never know exactly what happened but a lot of riders got caught up in it. I was just far enough back to be able to brake and meander my way through the bikes and bodies. There were at least 40 riders ahead of the crash and they showed no mercy, continuing up the road at pace.

I was among a few stragglers who were desperate to catch that group. It was hard work, I needed to be back in that front group. If any of my 50-54 age group rivals were in that front group this could be the point where I’d lose the race. Plenty of motivation and lots of watts got me and about a dozen other riders back to the first group after about 28kms. I’d burnt a few unnecessary matches though in my efforts and I knew that could come back to bite me later.

So I hit the first climb in the lead group. I few of the big ‘rouleurs’ that had made it this far soon peeled off the back as we went uphill and we were down to about 25 riders after a few minutes of climbing. Johnny Hoogerland of Tour de France, barbed wire fame was there, retired from pro racing but still training hard and riding for the win in his 35-39 category.

The climb was about 10kms long, not steep by alpine standards but with a 3km middle section averaging about 8% it would certainly be hard enough to totally expose everyone’s level.

2kms up the climb and I took stock of what was happening. I was throwing out big power numbers to stay there but felt good. I had to respect those numbers though. No matter how good I felt I was nudging into the red and it wouldn’t be sustainable for long. I looked around the group. Every age group was represented by different colour race numbers on riders’ backs. I was only concerned by the orange 50-54’s. I could see every colour except orange around me. I checked again, still no orange numbers. No sign of my Turkish rival and it looked like I was leading my race.

That situation changes everything. Now it was all about getting to the finish as efficiently as possible and not getting caught by my orange men behind. Hoogerland and co were driving what was a hard pace for me. About 4kms into the climb I was happy to let them go and ride my own pace. I knew I wouldn’t be alone and sure enough I found myself with a few others who were either spent or had made the decision to ease off.

The steeper section of the climb went well, I rode my own pace and concentrated on a hard effort but one that I knew I could sustain. At the top of that climb there was a much needed drinks station, I was getting through plenty of water and grabbed a bottle without needing to stop. The next stretch was a lumpy affair with a 3km stretch of really bad road. Potholes and cracks every where. Huge potential for punctures or worse. Maximum concentration here and all went well as we threaded our bikes between all the hazards. Sarajevo has apparently promised to repave this section for the World Championship finals in October…..that doesn’t help me now.

Next came a super fast decent of about 15kms, punctuated by a few short ups. I’d checked the road out 2 days before and I knew exactly what to expect. Wide, good surface and very few bends requiring any braking. Very fast but very safe. I felt like I had dropped like a stone down that descent and was astonished to see Strava data later that would show the likes of Johnny Hoogerland ripping about a minute out of me on the descent.

So, back up Trebevic. I was with about 8 riders at this point. In the first minute of resuming climbing the cramps set in. I’d tried to stretch the relevant muscles out on the descent but this felt bad. I let the group go up the road while I eased off the watts and tried and hoped to ride through the cramps. This could all go seriously wrong. In my head I was being hunted down by my orange numbered riders and I could envisage them swamping me at any point. The next couple of kms went ok, I found a rhythm that seemed to spin the cramps away and I was holding about 30 seconds on the group I’d let go. I had to manage this carefully but as I looked back down the road at various vantage points I couldn’t see anyone behind me. The group that I’d let go started to fragment and my conservative pace was enough to catch a couple of them. The cramp was under control but only by easing off the gas. I was about 4 minutes slower up the same climb the second time around.

I needed water and the drink station was coming, but it wasn’t! For some reason it had disappeared, maybe they’d run out. I was out of water and anxious and thirsty with 20kms to the finish, mostly uphill.

I soldiered on, by this time riding on my own. As I glanced back with about 15kms to the finish I saw 3 riders catching me. If they were riders outside my age category this could be good, a group to drag me along. If there was an orange man in that group I was stuffed.

As the three caught me I was relieved to see young riders with different colours on their backs, no orange. Get the finish with these guys and I’ll win my race.

11kms to the finish and another drink station enabled a desperate grab for a flimsy plastic cup of water, not sure much went in but it was something. 10kms to go and a nice 2kms descent on smooth roads. The three I was with were going well and I was so glad to just suck the wheels. One of them turned out to be the leading lady on the day, Laura Simenc, a classy rider from Slovenia. She and the other 2 had probably been behind the crash earlier and didn’t make the first group. They’d probably paced their day well though and they all looked strong.

6.5kms to go, the final climb up to the finish, averaging about 6%. 20 minutes or so of just getting home and dry. I was counting down every metre. I needed this to be over. Laura and the other 2 rode away from me and I would glance back down the straights to see if I was being pursued, there was no one. Barring a puncture I was safe now, my legs would only afford me about 75% of the power I’d usually hope for but it didn’t matter. I crossed the line alone in rather anticlimactic manner. The job was done.

I was relieved to see the results that confirmed I’d comfortably won my category. Turns out my nearest pursuer was 8 minutes back so it turned out to be a comfortable win….on paper.

The focus shifted to the razzmatazz of the awards and presentation. This was pretty cool to be involved in. It’s not every day you get to wait in a special UCI holding tent with the other winners like Johnny Hoogerland, waiting to be called up to the stage to get our shiny gold medals and winner’s jerseys.

Once that was all done I downed a couple of big beers in a nearby bar and was able to reflect on the day. I came here primarily to qualify for the final. To be in with a shout of a podium in the final I needed to win this qualifier though for my own confidence. I didn’t want to come back in October knowing that that some of the field had already beaten me. The final would be a far bigger field and far stronger opposition, this had been a test I needed to pass easily.

I’d learned a lot. I now knew the course well, a massive advantage when I come back. I also know how I’ll need to adjust my ride for the final. In the first hour of this race I’d ridden hard and and created an unassailable lead over my rivals. I’d ended up almost limping to the finish and paying for those early exploits. The final will be on the same course but an extra climb up the Trebevic meaning another 35kms and 800m of climbing. Another hour on the bike. I will need to be far more intelligent with pacing if I’m going to ride strong to the end.

Going to the final will excite and drive me in my riding over the next weeks. How successful I am in October will depend on not just me, but whoever else happens to turn up. I can’t control that. I’ll be good at what I can control though and I’ll turn up for that final with the best chance possible to fulfil my rainbow stripe goal.

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